Is it safe to go back to the office?

is it safe to go to the office coronavirus
Photo via David Martyn Hunt/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
  • Offices continue to present a higher risk of COVID-19 infection
  • Employers are working to negate the risk but some are still concerned
  • Refusing to return to the office could have consequences

Although the coronavirus pandemic is still a major factor in everyone’s lives, furloughed employees and those who shifted to home offices are beginning to return to work. With this return to the office comes anxiety over the safety of working in potentially crowded spaces with high infection risks. Employees wonder if it’s safe to go to the office and how to better protect themselves as we shift into this new, post-pandemic normal.

Even the Washington Post has mused that “Americans might never come back to the office.”

On May 27, the CDC released guidelines for employers regarding safety measures for returning employees. The guidelines include advisories on safe working conditions, isolation procedures, and educational resources. While these will surely help compliant businesses adapt, the reality that workplaces are awash with shared spaces makes them an inherent risk. 

There is no legal definition of what constitutes a safe working environment under COVID-19. That could potentially grant employers broad power in punishing and terminating employees who feel unsafe returning to normal office life. The recommendations regarding safety continue to shift—initially, the infection range was assumed to be much smaller, and mask-wearing suggestions have changed—and that makes it even harder for employers to guarantee a safe working environment. If, that is, the employers even tell their employees about positive tests in the office.

Experts have a variety of suggestions for making the transition back to offices as easy and safe as possible. Easy access to hand sanitizer and soap, staggered work and lunchtimes, enhanced cleanliness methods, and better testing are all on the list of advised changes for businesses. Perhaps the company could provide masks for its employees in case they forget their face covering at home or damage them while in the office. You can also probably forget about hobnobbing with co-workers in a shared break room or kitchen. And if you work in a major metropolitan downtown center, there’s a good chance that not many other people have returned to their offices—and perhaps your employer itself is thinking hard about not signing new leases.

(Or, if you’re not ready to work at the office but you’re tired of looking at the walls of your home during business hours, one Las Vegas group is targeting remote workers with a new “Viva Las Office” program. Some incentives, according to CNN, are “cheap rooms, discounted jet service, private pool access, and even an ‘executive assistant.’)

But not all workplaces are the same. While a typical office space can likely make many of these changes, other businesses will be left with no choice but to keep their doors shuttered or to reopen without fully implementing recommended procedures.

Even with the CDC’s adjustments, some employees may not feel safe returning to work, especially as the U.S. continues to set daily records for new coronavirus cases and new records for most hospitalizations. In many cases, employers are allowing their workers the choice. If employees are concerned that they may face termination due to their refusal to return, however, National Law Review addressed the legal standing that businesses and individuals have in this instance. Several federal laws, including the OSH Act, NLRA, and the Families First Coronavirus Response Act all offer assistance for employees with concerns about returning to work amid a pandemic.

In October, the state of Michigan issued new rules for employers whose workers have returned to the office, including requiring a preparedness plan for employers, daily health screenings for employees, providing PPE, and requiring sick workers to remain at home.

A number of multinational corporations have said it’s fine for their workers to continue working from home (and if you hope video-based meetings are going away anytime soon, you can think again). Google, for example, said its employees will work remotely until at least July 2021. Twitter and Facebook have also shown no desire to bring back workers to an office for the time being, and in October, it was noted that Microsoft, Target, and Ford would keep workers away from the office until at least the summer of 2021.

Even England is struggling with the idea of whether working in an office is safe for its citizens.

In October, Bloomberg announced it would give its returning employees $75 per day to help defray the costs of traveling back to the office.

In early September, JPMorgan, with President Trump’s encouragement, began a push to bring back its workers to the office. Less than a week later, it had to send home workers who had been infected with COVID-19.

Is it safe:

Sources: CNBC, CDC, Market Place, Time, National Law Review

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